Law Recap: Defamation and Libel

Along with reporting crime this is another big danger area. 
“Don’t ever hold back from suggesting to a colleague that there might be any legal risk.”-Ian Anderson.

Reasons for learning about defamation: 
Legal problems will not do your career any good. For your reputation knowing these legal problems will help. If you do get involved with any legal scrape it will be demoralising and the cost are high. You’ll be a much better journalist if you know where the dangers are. 

Defamation- What is it? 
A statement written or broadcasted that has affected a persons reputation and lowered it. 
-Lowers somebody in the mind of right thinking people.  
-Causes them to be shunned and avoided.
-Disparages them in their business. 
-Exposes them to HATRED, ridicule or contempt. 

Defamation in broadcasting via pictures
Common danger in TV, juxtaposition problems.  
-Careless use of background shots with voice over can be defamatory.
-People or companies must not be identifiable in certain contexts e.g. child abuse, fraud. 
-Imprecise shots 

Reputation and meaning 
-Reputation is precious, especially if you are in public life, have money- or both! 
Be on your guard when big your report about big brands and celebrities. Consider the risks with certain people. 
  • Whether something is defamatory is in the eyes of regular person. It would be judged by the jury, just like in the court of law. The new act however cuts back on the jury and cases will be judged only by the judge. 
  • Interference is a hazard- Read your content back to yourself before sending it. 
  • Innuendo is a hazard. 
Three key elements of the definition of libel
Publication + Defamation + Identification = Libel 

Libel defenses
  • Risk of libel is dangerous. Low threshold of proof for whether the statement is defamatory. 
  • Statement must cause ‘serious harm’- forced you to leave job, lost money etc. (Hitting an ego more than livelihood is not libel.) 
  • Truth (previously justification) It’s true and I can prove it. 
  • Honest opinion (previously fair comment) the test for fair comment must show it is an opinion which could be held by an honest person based upon a known fact at the time of writing. 
  • Public interest. main campaigning issues that people argue for. 
(Reynolds defence was raised in the late 1990s when Reynolds, the irish prime minister tried to sue the sunday times for a defamatory article. The newspaper argued it was in the publics interest and won. the issue was raising was in public interest, they were allowed the defence. If you can show that it is overwhelmingly in the publics interest then you will be ok.) 
  • Web publication protections that are new. It is a defence for the operator to show that it was not the operator who posted the statement on the website. 
  • Peer reviewed academic journals are privileged
  • Absolute privilege- court reporting 
  • Qualified privilege- police quotes, pressers
  • Single publication rule 
  • Bane and antidote- defamation removed by context. 
No defence when: 
  • You have not checked your facts
  • when you have not ‘referred up’ and not checked with news editor. 
  • Always put yourself in the shoes of the person to see how it might be viewed. 
  • Got carried away with ‘juicy’ story. 
  • Not bothered to wait for lawyer’s opinion 
Recognise the Risk
  • Who am i writing about, and could they sue? 
  • Is what I am writing potentially defamatory

2013 act 
Protects people with very little resources. (so small business don’t go bankrupt) Community news website, for example, would not be taken to libel at court, little chance of it. Balance being addressed now to protect people from being defamed and freedom of speech. 
McLibel- campaigners up against global company, Mcdonalds. Were these people are really big harm to McDonalds? Under the new regime this wouldn’t of gone to court. The people had their freedom to campaign about it. 

A new defamation act in force from December- slightly different libel defenses. Roy Greenslade blogged a bit on it. The current libel cases are still being used with the old act.
When does a story become defamatory? 

You’re a city trader awarded a bonus of 2m and spent 100k on wine, the waitress tells the newspaper. 

 “ She is worth 1m bonus, she is a talented trader who works hard and plays hard” 
- Not defamatory. Not an edgy comment. 

“A bonus that size is a disgrace and an obscenity when compared to the wage squeeze most people are suffering.” 
- fair comment? 

“How can a bonus that size be a fair reward for an honest day’s work?” 
- fair comment? Suggesting that his work isn’t honest? call the lawyer on this quote. 

Staff in other firms say that insider trading was not an alien concept at that company, so it’s not an accident that bonuses were up this year”
-This statement is defamatory. Private trading is illegal. If there is criminal wrong doing within this company this will change the case.

Current big libel cases:
Andrew Michael- Plebgate row 
Lord McAlpine- BBC Newsnight. He also went after all the tweeters. Sally Bercow’s tweet was libel. “ Why is Lord McAlpine trending. innocent face” 
Jigsaw identification- because of social media it has now entered the world of defamation. 

Libel cases still happen, (at newsnight about Lord McAlpine) these people are all trained, but they still got it badly wrong. 

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